Dozens of times over the past five years, high-profile detainees in China have memorized scripts admitting guilt and denouncing “anti-China forces.” They then delivered them to cameras under the direction of police, who in some cases demanded weeping for dramatic effect and spent hours recording retakes to obtain the final result: a polished confession released to the public, typically on television by state media.
Chinese authorities have honed the “weaponization” of such admissions, says Scripted and Staged, a lengthy new report by human-rights group Safeguard Defenders that has investigated 45 televised admissions since 2013. Some of those confessions, delivered by foreign citizens or people of global concern, have become tools of foreign policy as well as domestic propaganda.
Now, the authors of the report are calling for foreign countries to act against the broadcasters of those confessions, including through imposition of travel bans and asset freezes against executives at state media.
“China’s use of forced television confessions warrants urgent global attention,” the report states. Media that collaborate in the process, it says, are “as culpable as the Chinese state in committing this deceptive, illegal and human rights-violating practice.”
Those who have made such confessions include accused fraudsters, drug users and terrorists, as well as human-rights lawyers, activists and journalists. Critics say China obtains confessions by coercion and their public airing violates the basic legal rights of confessors, many of whom appear on television before they appear in court.
The report also recommends the registration of Chinese media employees abroad as foreign agents, and the use of Magnitsky legislation – which has been adopted in Canada, among other countries – to pursue sanctions on human-rights grounds against media owned or controlled by China’s Communist Party.
The call for sanctions follows similar action taken in 2013 by the European Court of Justice against executives with Iran’s Press TV for its role in airing forced confessions. The network was also dropped from some international satellite services, a move it called a “flagrant violation of freedom of speech.”
“The danger is if we do not make a concrete response and clear objection to China’s televised confessions, then not only will China continue the repugnant practice, then such abuse will become normalized,” said report editor Rachael Tyrell.
State media are a key component of Beijing’s bid to shape global perceptions of the country. Last month, the Chinese government made public plans to merge some of its media operations into a new broadcaster, Voice of China, whose operation will fall under the leadership of the Communist Party’s Central Publicity Department.
China’s People’s Daily has said it needs a “‘super voice’ to drown out the anti-China propaganda and give people a clearer picture of China.”
But in airing confessions to a foreign audience, “they are attempting to control the narrative and rebut criticism from abroad by forcing the detainee to parrot lies on camera,” said Ms. Tyrell. “If this is telling ‘China’s story’ to the world, it’s a very frightening one, and the international community should not hesitate to condemn and reject it.”
Foreign measures against Chinese media could counteract the influence of outlets such as state broadcaster CCTV and news service Xinhua, said Peter Dahlin, a Swedish legal aid worker who in early 2016 confessed to “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people.”
“With billions and billions spent in expanding CCTV, Xinhua, etc. – to be able to limit their expansions abroad is quite important,” said Mr. Dahlin, who was deported following his televised confession.
Although some Chinese state journalists have at times fallen under suspicion for spying, Mr. Dahlin criticized foreign governments for allowing the country’s media to freely operate and expand.
“This is party-led media that engages not only as an extension of foreign policy, but also in China as part of law enforcement – and yet we turn a blind eye completely,” he said. He called his own confession a “political terror tool” meant to inspire fear in others doing human-rights work in China.
At least five media organizations have participated in airing confessions since 2013, including multiple arms of state broadcaster CCTV, state-owned digital outlet The Paper and several Hong Kong media outlets, including Phoenix TV, Oriental Daily and the South China Morning Post. The latter is owned by Alibaba Group, the online company co-founded by billionaire Jack Ma.
The production of those confessions has grown more sophisticated over time, with more recent iterations designed to appear less staged – including by filming detainees wearing civilian clothing in more natural settings.
Still, their content remains the product of authorities’ intent, sometimes secured after lengthy interrogations, threats against family members or promises of more lenient treatment, the report says.
“There was no room to bargain. I was to say exactly, word-for-word, what they decided,” said Wen, a pseudonymous human-rights defender interviewed for the report.
“They asked me to sob, choke with tears” said Zhao, another pseudonymous human rights defender.
Human-rights lawyer Wang Yu recited a script for cameras numerous times over the course of several months, at one point reading from a computer where the words were displayed in large text. It was only when authorities were satisfied with her performance that she was able to be reunited with her son and his father.